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Beyonce's new album reviewed

Washington Examiner logo Washington Examiner 8/5/2022 Armin Rosen
LA.Culture.jpg © Mason Poole/A.M.P.A.S. via Getty Images LA.Culture.jpg

Beyonce and Hillary Clinton both nae nae’d in front of large audiences sometime in 2015, a fact that seems to explain everything and nothing about our current predicament. Relatedly, the Pitchfork review for Beyonce’s new album Renaissance helpfully reminds us that the former Destiny’s Child frontwoman has launched a fashion line, released a record with her husband Jay-Z, produced a short film, and voiced a character in a (horrific) live-action remake of The Lion King since 2016’s Lemonade, her last solo album and one of the monuments of 2010s pop culture. She has done all of this “while making clear that she’s intensely focused on celebrating the long legacy of black musicians and artists, of which she is a part and beacon,” per Pitchfork. “Her global reach is a reminder that Beyonce, the billionaire pop icon, does not and could not exist in a vacuum.”

So much reads like a press release now. A great deal of establishment reporting on major policy areas is indistinguishable from the output of the comms shop of the national committee of a single political party. For once-countercultural Pitchfork, Beyonce can only be praised and celebrated. This is almost understandable. To analyze her threatens to ruin the magic, and the magic itself is a key element of whatever shared culture the public still has left. She is proof that the monoculture dies hard or might not die after all.

Beyonce is taken as a reflection of who we are, meaning that to assail her is to assail ourselves. There is no 21st century pop artist who captures the morals and sentiments of the country as unfailingly as she does.

“Becky With the Good Hair” instantly entered both the language and the American cultural bestiary. “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)” captured the sexual politics of an entire age, for better and worse. When she mused about a particularly talented Instagram stripper graduating to OnlyFans in a song last year, it was the proof that something as potentially objectionable as the do-it-yourself amateur pornography market had finally become a banality. Her dancers appeared in Black Panther garb at the Super Bowl — the militant group, not the comic book character — in 2016, in the early-middle portion of the latest national race reckoning.

Beyonce has arguably been the reckoning’s most popularly beloved figure, offering a version of black assertion that flattered the pieties of a radicalizing elite without any of the unpleasant human resources terrorism of an Ibram Kendi. It helps that her music is usually good and that her various creative risks — the surprise release of her 2013 self-titled record, the confessionalism of Lemonade and its then-novel “visual album” companion piece, her instantly era-defining 2018 Coachella headlining set, her careful dalliance with the aesthetics of black radicalism — all landed.

Beyonce is an avatar of our national life. This is both her strength and her weakness. In the 25 years since the first Destiny’s Child single, no pop musician has been more important or more ubiquitous. Yet unlike her sister Solange Knowles, she is not a musical innovator. Lemonade did not invent the pop album as public psychodrama, but it did blow her marital strife with Jay-Z up to Beyonce-level proportions, raising a fistfight on an elevator at the Standard Hotel to the status of American myth. Lemonade was a morality play performed by living gods, with expensive samples, lyrics that became instant catchphrases, and choruses with a massiveness that only one person on Earth had the moral or musical authority to achieve.

Renaissance isn’t bad — it’s a very good pop album, even if it’s worlds away from the ambition and creative boundlessness of Bad Bunny’s Un Verano Sin Ti, the best tentpole record of 2022. On Renaissance, Beyonce shows an enthusiasm for pushing herself into unfamiliar musical territory that is nothing but admirable. But by Beyonce standards, the new album is something worse than bad: It’s slight.

Renaissance is Beyonce’s tribute to the black pioneers of what’s now imperfectly known as electronic dance music. House music, an innovation that emerged from the black gay nightlife scene in Chicago, Detroit, and New York in the 1980s, was an inheritor of jazz in the same sense that hip-hop is — all three art forms seek to transcribe the feeling of spontaneous creation into music. A Frankie Knuckles set from the mid-1980s is a single brilliant mind converting thought into sound at the moment it reaches consciousness. In Knuckles’s case, as with the jazz greats of previous generations, this process formed the bedrock of decades of subsequent pop music, a fact that isn’t exactly obscure these days. We all live in a houselike soundscape of melodic synths, heavy snare beats, and looped vocal interpolations. As for disco, it’s so baked into modern pop that we don’t even consciously hear it anymore. Donna Summer's “I Feel Love” sounds more like the present than any other hit of the 1970s. Chances are there’s someone basically rewriting it, probably for Dua Lipa, right this very second.

You get to hear “I Feel Love” on Renaissance. It’s shamelessly interpolated into “Summer Renaissance,” the cleverly named album closer. In the run-up to the record’s release, Kelis complained that a snippet of her 2003 hit “Milkshake” was looped in the song “Energy” without her permission. “WAP,” the filthy Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion chart-topper from 2020, reached No. 1 with the help of a sample from an early ’90s Baltimore club hit. Grace Jones pops up on “Move,” but for me, that only recalled how bursting with ideas her 1981 record Nightclubbing still sounds and how thin Renaissance seems in comparison.

Renaissance is a useful lesson in the difference between appropriation as a meaningless culture war slur and the actual phenomenon of artists legitimating themselves through someone else’s accomplishments. There’s nothing sleazy or immoral about wanting to highlight a massively significant era in black culture, especially when the results are as simultaneously infectious and psychologically probing as “Break My Soul” or as spinally satisfying as “Alien Superstar.” But if house or disco were revolutions in sound, they were not ones that Beyonce made or even really contributed to. That she can make them her own isn’t a result of her having an especially novel take on her dance and disco forebears, but a function of power and scale, a reminder that the Queen Bey nickname is only barely figurative now.

Beyonce, as the Pitchfork review noted, is a billionaire. That is now perhaps the most salient fact about her: She is an industry, and it is hard to be both an artist and industry at the same time. Maybe it’s impossible. Billionaire-level wealth and status distort how an artist is received and can’t help but subtly warp creative priorities. Among other things, it means the tastemaking press are likely to treat you with deference rather than real engagement in an age when the media are helpless before the people they already like and agree with. A self-probing record about the strange and perhaps even schismatic existence of being a billionaire artist who is now closely associated with establishment power would be a significant contribution, a worthy follow-up to Lemonade. Maybe we’ll get that kind of record from someone someday.

Who will be the first to make something honest and artistically daring about this strange new existence of the hyper-wealthy god-artist? Pop stars used to be people’s champions representing the social fringes — today, they practically rule us. Such an album will require an artist who is capable of stepping outside themselves and seeing his or her cosmological net worth and social status as being as strange and historically aberrant as they actually are. After spending some time with Renaissance, my guess is that it will be the singer-turned-cosmetics tycoon Rihanna who gets there first. Queen Bey, who has ruled the charts since she was 16, sounds like she believes her courtiers’ praise.

Armin Rosen is a New York-based reporter at large for Tablet.

 

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